Opinion

What Did U.S. Ambassador David Friedman Say That Was New?

David Friedman speaks during the dedication ceremony of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018.
REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

It is hard to understand the outrage in Haaretz in response to U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, who voiced support for Israel retaining a portion of the West Bank. After all, historically, U.S. policy always left open this very possibility. This was the heart of the debate between American President Lyndon Johnson and Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin in 1967 over whether the draft resolution that was to become UN Security Council Resolution 242 should include the definitive article in the withdrawal clause requiring a withdrawal from “the territories,” as Moscow required, or just a withdrawal “from territories,” as Washington suggested.

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The way Washington kept the door of territorial modifications open expressed itself in different ways. With the opening of the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, President George H. W. Bush spoke about there needing to be a “territorial compromise,” but not a full withdrawal. In his 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon, President George W. Bush spoke about a full and complete return to the 1967 lines as being “unrealistic.” Like President Clinton’s Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, Bush declared that Israel had a right to “defensible borders.”

What seems to offend the author of Haaretz’s critique of Friedman the most is his assertion about Israel’s rights. The article tells Haaretz readers that Israel has no legal rights to any of the territories it captured in 1967. The most important legal analysis of this question, in fact, was written in 1980 by Stephen Schwebel, who would become the Legal Adviser to the Department of State and subsequently president of the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Schwebel did not doubt Israel’s rights; looking purely at the legal side, he wrote, “… Israel has better title in the territory of what was Palestine, including the whole of Jerusalem, than do Jordan and Egypt.” In short, by suggesting Israel had legal rights to retain some West Bank land, Friedman was not very far away from a traditional American view that appeared in previous public statements.

Haaretz then raises the possibility that Friedman was speaking merely of Israel’s historical rights, implying to the reader that this provides no relevant rationale for the Jewish people’s presence. This approach ignores the fact that Israel’s roots as our people’s historical homeland are recognized in a chain of international documents, beginning with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, and in the 1922 document instating the British Mandate – a legally binding treaty – which recognized the Jewish people’s historical connection with their land. This documented recognition culminated in 1948, when the very opening sentence of Israel’s Declaration of Independence duly noted the Land of Israel as the historical and spiritual birthplace of the Jewish people.

Dore Gold is a former director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and currently president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.